Calipari can take pride in restoration project
Like Gillispie, Memphis coach brought team back
By FRAN BLINEBURY
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
The world of sports is filled with reconstruction projects. Some take years of slow, steady and careful progress, like walking up a long, narrow flight of stairs. Some never get off the ground before they're abandoned.
Then there are the kind that happened at Texas A&M, where it seems the world went to bed one night staring at an empty landscape and woke up the next morning to find a towering edifice. From 0-16 to the Sweet 16 in three seasons under Billy Gillispie.
"It's one of the great turnarounds that I have seen in the last 20 years," said Memphis coach John Calipari. "He had a plan going in, and he went with that plan. He recruited the type of players that he feels comfortable coaching. He made a couple of guys change once they were there. He changed the culture, and I am so impressed watching what he is doing. They play offense now, too. They run good stuff. I'll be honest. I have only seen them a couple of times this year, but how can anybody not be impressed with what's happened so fast?"
Of course, Calipari could have been talking about his situation at Memphis, where in seven years he's picked the once-proud Tigers off the floor, removed the tarnish and restored the luster to a program that hasn't shined so brightly in the spotlight for more than two decades.
When Memphis meets the Aggies on Thursday night in San Antonio, it will be the first time the Tigers have made consecutive Sweet 16 appearances since 1984 and 1985.
When the Tigers advanced to the Elite Eight last year, Rodney Carney, Shawne Williams and Darius Washington were the stars, and two were first-round NBA draft picks. Now Calipari has the Tigers back in the hunt with one consistent, big-time scorer in Chris Douglas-Roberts and a deep, hustling, aggressive roster.
Memphis has not lost since Dec. 20 at Arizona, and has a win streak that has grown to 24 and an attitude that says the only thing that matters is what happens tomorrow.
"Streak? What streak?" Calipari said with his best deadpan expression. "We're at two in this Tournament."
Just the way Gillispie hit the ground running in College Station and quickly got the Aggies taking flight with defense, Calipari brought his résumé from the University of Massachusetts and the New Jersey Nets to Memphis and put the bite quickly back into the Tigers.
His first five Memphis teams went to the NIT semifinals three times and won the championship in 2003. Now they've put together back-to-back 30-win campaigns, and as a No. 2 seed, have to be considered a threat to go all the way.
It would certainly help to have Douglas-Roberts back in the lineup after he suffered a sprained left ankle with eight minutes to play in Sunday's win over Nevada. But the Tigers remained strong down the stretch without Douglas-Roberts, breaking open a two-point game to win 78-62.
"I told him to 'rub some dirt on it, because you're playing Thursday in San Antonio,' " Calipari said Sunday.
After his weekly radio show Monday night in Memphis, Calipari indicated Douglas-Roberts would play.
"I think he will," Calipari said. "Let's hope that Chris is healthy. If he's not, we'll figure it out and we'll play without him. Let's go in with one thing in mind: We're going after people."
It doesn't go unnoticed to Calipari that the Aggies will be playing in their backyard.
"Billy will probably say there is no home-court advantage," Calipari said Sunday. "I am fine with that, just the fact that we're still playing. You're talking about two pretty good teams. I wish it was in our state, but it's not. But I predict that we'll bring a lot of fans, maybe 4(000) to 5,000."
But an injured star
What they'll hope to bring is a healthy Douglas-Roberts. But if he can't go, the Tigers will just run in a replacement and expect the same results.
"We're ready for anything," forward Robert Dozier said.
"It's an attitude that anything's possible," guard Antonio Anderson said.
When it comes to turnarounds, the Aggies have nothing on the Tigers.